Houston-based space company Intuitive Machines is preparing for a real shot at the moon later this month, when it will attempt to land a spacecraft named Odysseus on the lunar surface — ideally without it breaking apart in the process. The mission follows Astrobotic's failed attempt in January; that company's lander, Peregrine, never arrived on the moon due to a propellant leak that cut its trip short. Peregrine's failure means IM-1 intuitive machines The mission could be the first-ever commercial landing on the Moon if it gets there intact.
Intuitive Machines hopes to make its landing attempt on February 22, targeting the Malapert A crater near the Moon's south pole for its landing. That arrival date depends on whether Odysseus, one of the company's Nova-C-class landers, will leave Earth atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket between February 14 and 16. The launch window opens at 12:57 a.m. ET on Wednesday.
Ulysses is the first of three Nova-C lander plans Intuitive Machines to be sent to the Moon this year, all of which will have commercial payloads and NASA instruments on board, as contracted through the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Measuring 4.3 meters tall, the lander is about the size of a giraffe and can carry about 280 pounds (130 kg) of cargo. Its mission, if it makes a successful soft landing, will be short but potentially valuable in informing future excursions to the region, including NASA's upcoming crewed Artemis missions. Orbiting probes have found traces of water ice at the lunar south pole, which could be used for astronaut sustenance and even fuel, making it an area of great interest for human exploration.
The solar-powered craft and any functional equipment it carries are only expected to be in working order for about a week before the onset of lunar night, a 14-day period of frigid darkness that the company says will leave the lander unusable. But while everything is operational, the various instruments will collect data on the surface. NASA awarded Intuitive Machines a $77 million contract to deliver its payloads in 2019, and six NASA instruments are now hitchhiking on Odysseus.
One of them, the Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA), will “function as a permanent locator mark” from its position on the moon after landing to help incoming spacecraft determine their distance from the surface, according to NASA. The lander also carries the Navigation Doppler LIDAR for precise speed and range sensing (NDL), a sensor that measures speed and altitude to better guide descent, and the Lunar Node 1 navigation demonstrator ( LN-1) to support communication and autonomous navigation. in future missions.
NASA also sends instruments to study surface plumes – everything that is triggered when the lander lands – as well as radio waves and the effects of space weather. This includes the Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume Surface Studies (SCALPSS), which will capture images of these dust plumes, and the Photoelectron Sheath Lunar Surface Radio Wave Observation (ROLSES) instrument.
The remainder of the payloads aboard Odysseus are commercial. Columbia Sportswear worked with Intuitive Machines to incorporate the brand's Apollo-inspired Omni-Heat Infinity thermal reflective material, which is used for this mission to help protect the cryogenic propulsion tank, according to Intuitive Machines. Students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University have developed a camera system called EagleCam that will attempt to separate from the lander before it lands and take a photo of the moment from a third-person perspective. EagleCam is also equipped with an experimental dust collection system.
There are even Jeff Koons sculptures heading to the moon, which will have physical and NFT counterparts on Earth. In Koons' Moon Phase piece, 125 small stainless steel sculptures of the moon in different phases are encased in a transparent cube made by 4Space, with the names of important historical figures from around the world listed beneath each sphere. The International Lunar Observatory Association, based in Hawaii, and Canadensys Aerospace are sending a 1.3-pound dual-camera system called ILO-X, with which they will attempt to capture wide- and narrow-field images of the Milky Way from the moon.
Odysseus also carries small disks called “Lunagrams” from Galactic Legacy Labs that contain messages from Earth, including text, images, audio and archives from major databases such as the Arch Mission Foundation and the English version of Wikipedia. Similar archival materials were sent into space with Peregrine last month. Information technology company Lonestar plans to demonstrate its disaster recovery service (DRaaS) by storing data on the lander and transmitting documents (including the United States Declaration of Independence) between Earth and the Moon. This will follow with a mini data center prototype when Intuitive Machines next launches.
Now the pressure is on for the Odysseus Nova-C lander to reach the lunar surface safely. This year got off to a rocky start for lunar missions, with the failure of Astrobotic's Peregrine and a descent hiccup that caused JAXA's SLIM spacecraft to crash onto the lunar surface (although the latter miraculously was able to resume his functions to a certain extent after a few days). Intuitive Machines will have other chances to succeed if it doesn't this time – several missions are already booked – but only one private lander can be “first”.